ROCHESTER, N.Y. – It looked like a night that wasn’t meant to be for the Hershey Bears in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Rochester Americans. Despite piling up a hefty shot lead in the second period, Hershey was down 2-0 through two periods and it looked like the Bears might be coming home with just a split in the series after a solid win in Game Three. The Bears rattled off three goals in just over five minutes in the back half of the third period to turn the deficit into a 3-2 lead before scoring on the empty net to take a 4-2 decision in Game Four. Hunter Shepard made 20 saves in the win while Malcolm Subban made 32 saves in the loss. The Bears take a 3-1 series lead back to Hershey ahead of Game Five on Wednesday night.
Rochester started the game exactly how they wanted to in this game, striking three minutes into the game with Linus Weissbach’s second of the playoffs on a rebound of a shot from Filip Cederqvist to put the Americans in front on some Memorial Day Calder Cup Playoff hockey. The Amerks got another sellout crowd of 10,687 and got them on their feet early as the rising shot hit Shepard and created a perfect rebound for Weissbach to bury to open the scoring. Rochester had plenty of possession and chances with plenty of motivation to even the series up on home ice.
The second period saw the Bears push back, outshooting the Americans by a 14-7 count but not finding the back of the net. Much as the Bears endured the push in the first period, Rochester’s defense led by Subban kept the visitors from finding the net before a counterpunch from a familiar face. Matt Bartkowski got loose and fired a shot for a perfect deflection past the outstretched Hershey goaltender to double the Amerks’ lead after two periods.
The clock seemed to move at an alarming speed for the Bears in the third period, and the 2-0 deficit felt like scaling Mount Everest with every shot finding a way to stay out of the net whether it be a post hit or a timely save. The Bears would finally crack the scoreboard at the halfway mark of the period as Aliaksei Protas fed Lucas Johansen out of the corner in the slot, and despite losing the puck initially, Johansen stayed with it and chipped the puck between the pads of Subban that changed the course of the game.
Johansen scored just one goal in the regular season back in October for the Bears, but his tally in this game is his second of the postseason. Another player who has risen to the occasion for the Chocolate and White from the blue line is Logan Day, who got in on the scoring for his third goal of the postseason by taking a cross-ice pass from Connor McMichael cutting in from the point and wiring a shot to the top corner of the net to even the score just over two minutes after the Johansen goal. Day has eight points in ten playoff games, only four back from his total point output in the regular season in 36 games.
Hershey needed one more player to step up and be the hero in this game, and it was fitting that the hero would be Mason Morelli. The only Hershey skater to play in all 72 regular season games, Morelli has thrived in multiple roles for the Bears with his hardworking attitude that’s seen him go from struggling to find a regular spot in the lineup during his first year in Hershey back in 2020-21 to setting a new single season high in points with 41 (12 goals, 29 assists) this season. His goal that would stand up as the game-winner was from a familiar spot for him, in front of the goaltender causing chaos. He’d battle for a rebound of a point shot from Day and bury it past Subban to put the Bears in front.
“Credit to every guy in our locker room,” Morelli said to FOX43 reporters who covered the game. “Everyone bought in and stuck to our game plan. We might have been down 2-0, but we still believed and played hard.”
With the tables turned, Rochester would pull the goaltender and push for a tying goal in the remaining 4:33 of hockey, but Hershey was once again able to clamp down and seal the game with an empty net tally, fittingly off the tape of Morelli after an unselfish pass from Protas. The duo, along with Sam Anas (who tallied a secondary assist on the Johansen goal) represent Hershey’s top three scorers in the Calder Cup Playoffs so far as the Bears at long last have players in the top twenty in the league in terms of scoring.
The win puts the Bears on the brink of returning to the Calder Cup Finals for the first time since 2016, and they’ll have a chance to end the series on home ice at Giant Center on Wednesday. It’s not the first time the Americans have had their backs to the wall, having come back from a 2-0 series deficit to shock the Syracuse Crunch in overtime in Game Five during the first round, but this task is certainly their biggest yet as they’d need to win twice on the road to advance after having the wind taken out of their sails in this game. They’ll be able to play a little looser given the situation on Wednesday with that game set to be the most intense installment yet.
The bear head went to forward Ethen Frank, who jumped back into the lineup for an ill Henrik Borgstrom in a change just prior to the game. The win even had head coach Todd Nelson doing the signature roar that’s been synonymous with this iteration of the Bears. That sets the stage for Wednesday’s Game Five at Giant Center. The Bears can return to the Calder Cup Finals with a win, while a win for the Americans would send the series back to Blue Cross Arena in Rochester for Game Six. If needed, a seventh and decisive game would be in Hershey on June 5.
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